Thursday, September 15, 2011

Scientific Naturalism, Atheism, and God:

“I try to read all books on a subject. You know, try to get all the facts...and then decide for myself what really happened.” Kevin Spacey in Negotiator

This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for a long, long time.  And admittedly, it’s not a subject I’ve read “all” the books on, as this would be an impossible task.  Nevertheless, I’ve read more books and articles than most and have had numerous conversations with others as well.  All this reading and research has led me to conclude that the amount of evidence for God, even more specifically, the Christian God, is far weightier than evidence against.  And while I’ll be sure to mention a few of these pieces of evidence as I write through this post, I’m initially inclined to write about what doesn’t make sense in the Naturalistic/Atheistic case.  While the case for Naturalism does have some scientific merit behind it, there are aspects to a Naturalistic worldview that just don’t add up.

I separate these two categories of Naturalism/Atheism for a couple of reasons.  The main reason is that not all atheists are Naturalists.  I recently listened to a debate between a Christian philosopher and an Atheist and the Atheist ceded the point that the definition and even evidence of a G/god provided by his debater were very good.  What it boiled down to was he just didn’t like the Christian God. He acknowledged the evidence for a G/god, agreed that it was difficult to counter, but then spoke for 30 minutes about what he didn’t like about this G/god.  He didn’t use Naturalistic arguments at all (which was evidence of him not personally being a Naturalist).  I found his argument fascinating, as he all but ceded the point that a G/god very well may exist based on the evidence.  However, it is true (at least I’m 99.9% certain it’s true) that all Naturalistic thinkers are atheists.  But because of the former, I’ve decided to separate these two groups for the time being.

As we dive into this post, I’d like to begin by stating what I’ve come to understand Naturalism to teach.  If you would happen to be reading this and believe that I’ve come to some misunderstand, feel free to highlight areas of disagreement.  But I’m going to provide quotes from some Naturalistic/Atheistic thinkers to help support my understandings.  With that said, here is a brief list of what Naturalism teaches:

1)      Scientism (or empiricism) is the only way we can really “know” anything.  All knowledge is based on what one can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  It’s all based on the 5 senses.  If it can’t be proven with the 5 senses, we can’t know whether it’s real (or true) or not.

My understanding on this comes from this quote by Sellars from the University of Pittsburgh, when he said, “Science is the measure of all things.”  There are many, many other quotes I could use on this understanding as well, but this should be sufficient for now.  This is, indeed, the most common view of Scientific Naturalism, and as you will see below this view doesn’t allow for morality, purpose, or free will.

2)  Naturalism does not allow for any purpose/meaning in life.  Everything in life is random and there is no real meaning to anything.  I once asked an atheist friend of mine what, if anything, the purpose of life is and he said, “There is no real purpose in life.  The only real purpose there is that we procreate so the human species may continue to evolve.”

Another quote on this comes from Stephen J. Gould. He was once asked about the meaning of life, his answer was: “The human species has only inhabited the world for only a quarter of a million years.  1/15 of 1% of the history of life…this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the accumulation of a prefigured plan.  Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable, and utterly unpredictable.  Wind life’s tape back again to the dawn of time, play it again, and you will never get human beings a second time.”

The downfall of this view is that this essentially means there are no morals.  Morality, in essence, is created by man as a form of control.   If not control, it is created only to help the human species continue to thrive.  Check out this article for an understanding of this view of morality. 

Strangely enough, however, there is a higher morality that all human beings are well aware of.  There are, quite simply, things we all know we ought not do.  Torturing a child would be one of them.  There are dozens of things all humans know we ought not do, and I would argue we know these things because there is a God who has given us a firm understanding of the knowledge of good and evil.  Without a higher morality given to us by God, morality is a man-made invention.

 Again, Gould states, “You may long for a higher answer, but none exists.”

Additionally, Carl Sagan stated, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”  I’ve read many other quotes and articles as well, and can assure you this position is very central to Scientific Naturalism.

Jeffry Dahmer understood this argument well when he said, “If a personal doesn't think there is a God to be accountable to, then --then what's--what's the point of--of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That's how I thought, anyway.  I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we die, you know, that was it, there is nothing..." Dahmer also admitted that this was why he did what he did. If he had certain desires, why should he give in to those desires if there was no purpose behind his actions anyway? If he was only going to turn back to slime, why not do whatever it was he wanted to do to satisfy his desires?  The wonderful thing about this example is the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that God existed, and eventually he was converted to Christianity.

Against this position of there being no higher morality I would argue that humans ask about purpose and meaning because deep down we know there is a purpose and a meaning to what we do.  If there wasn’t, morality was simply created by man, and there is no real higher morality.  (Note: this is another area where atheism and Scientific Naturalism differ.  Many atheists believe in morality, but most will attempt to use the sciences to explain it, and few – if any – have made a good argument as to where morality comes from if it’s not manmade.  The simple answer from an atheist is, “Morality, like everything else, has always been here.”  But as I’ll highlight below, this argument fails as well.)

3)        A Naturalistic worldview does not allow for a beginning of all things.

I once asked an atheist friend how everything in the universe began.  The answer I received was (like morality), “We just need to accept that it’s always been here.”  This is, in general, the most likely response one receives when asking this question.  Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this viewpoint. 

Let’s say that this graph here represents the general space/time continuum as we know it.  Earth (or where the universe is at this moment) is represented by the X on the line.


The Naturalistic and atheistic argument made is, “we need to accept that it’s ‘always’ been here”.  In other words, the universe has been around since infinity years ago.  The problem with this view is that it’s completely impossible to cross infinity to get to where we are right now on the continuum.  Check out the chart above.  It’s simply impossible to cross an infinite period of time and get to where we are today.  Without a starting point somewhere, we would never get to where we are today.  (Modern day Naturalists recognize this argument, by the way, and don’t yet have an answer for it other than, “We’re getting there.”  But the Judeo-Christian worldview of “There has to be a beginning somewhere,” makes sense on this account.)

Modern-day Naturalists are now being to formulate a theory that a universe (or universes in general) are able to create themselves out of nothing, but then nothing within that universe is able to spontaneously create itself.  This is very new thought in the Naturalistic field, and hasn’t fully gained traction yet.  But because there isn’t a good answer to the question of when/how/where did everything come from, Naturalistic thinkers are doing their best to answer these questions, they’re just falling short at this time.
     4)  Scientific Naturalism does not allow for free will.  This is one of the big ones for me, personally.  Naturalism simply does not permit the freedom of the will.  One cannot choose to like beer, or ice cream, or pizza, or blueberries.  Everything is an automatic response that must be done but isn’t actually chosen by an individual.  This idea is called determinism.  It is determined whether one loves their spouse, children, others, but they cannot choose to do so on their own.  Everything is an automatic response due to previous environments one has been a part of in the past, and the current environment.

Quotes on this come from two different well known Scientific Naturalists.  Berkeley states, “Our conception of physical reality does not allow for the existence of freedom of the will.”  And Provine states, “Free will, as it has traditionally been conceived, simply does not exist.”

This view from a Scientific Naturalism worldview is very much the nail in the coffin for me.  If there is no free will, no one is (or should be) responsible for any of their actions.  Again, the consequences of this viewpoint are profound.

I could go on and write so much more but I think this gives a good picture of my current understanding of scientific naturalism.  Again, I emphasize that Naturalism/Atheism are not the same.   Yet many atheists I’ve communicated with use the sciences to explain their understanding of these topics.  Now, I’ll quickly write about why I believe in God.

1)    There is much more out there than what the 5 senses (Scientism) allows.  As a pastor I have had dozens of conversations with others about things that have happened that had no scientific explanation whatsoever.  Whether it be someone being able to suddenly speak in another language, visible appearances of angels and/or demons, or something as complicated as a stroke victim who’s brain was completely destroyed suddenly reviving to full health, these dozens of conversations I’ve had add up to much more than coincidence.

When a bone in a human body is completely broken and 30 minutes later is not, it’s not a coincidence.  When a husband receives word that his wife will die within 24-48 hours and there’s nothing at all that can be done about it, and she suddenly revives, it’s not a coincidence.  When thousands of people around the world hear missionaries preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and suddenly realize Jesus is the One who’s been communicating to them in their dreams, it’s not a coincidence…and this is happening today in droves.  And finally, when demonic activity occurs, is visibly seen by dozens of witnesses and is cast out, it’s not a coincidence, and it’s never something the sciences or 5 senses are able to adequately explain.
2)    There is purpose and meaning to life.  Believing that our only purpose is to procreate for the survival of the species really has no meaning behind it. 

On this subject, a few months ago I learned of an atheist who began attending our congregation a few years ago.  Her then 8-year old son came to her and wanted to go to church.  She figured it was a phase and began bringing him to our congregation.  But he wanted to come back…again and again and again.  After a while she heard the song Amazing Grace during one of our times of worship.  At that moment, the gospel message simply made more sense to her than her former atheistic beliefs and she converted to Christianity.

I could write more about this, but will simply let you decide the consequences of living in a world with no meaning whatsoever.

3)  There is a beginning to all things.  The universe as we know it had to have a creator at some point in time.  While there are many, many views as to what all happens between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and the time periods between then and the 7 “days” of creation, it surely makes more sense that an uncreatable Creator began everything at a set point in history.  Again, it’s impossible to completely cross an infinite period of time.

Additionally, all the “fuel” in the universe is burning up.  At some point in the future, all heat will cease to exist in the entire universe.  At this point, absolute zero will occur and all movement will stop.  This “fuel” had to come from somewhere.  And because of what I wrote in #1 (in this section) and #3 (in the above section) , it makes the most sense that God placed the fuel in the tank.

4)  I like blueberries.  I don’t like other foods.  I love my wife and my children.  This is not an automatic response to my current environment as Scientific Naturalism teaches.  It’s a choice.  I can choose to not love others if I want to.  But because there is a firm meaning to life, I choose to love others, and will continue to do so.

Finally, I believe we can “know” God.  While Naturalism/atheism teaches there is no G/god, it is agnosticism that teaches we will never really know whether there is a G/god or not.  But scripture teaches as much (maybe even more) about knowing God than about faith/belief.  Christianity isn’t about blind faith, it’s about believing in a God who can be known to be true.  We only have to decide whether we want to choose to know him or not.

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